The Truth About Marilyn Monroe’s $5.6 Million Iconic Dress

Debbie Reynolds bought the dress from Kent Warner, who "liberated" the dress from Fox in the early 1970s.

In 1955, the tragic figure that was Marilyn Monroe made The Seven Year Itch with comedic actor Tom Ewell. The premise is pretty simple. Ewell’s wife (of seven years) and son and have fled a sweltering New York City and gone off on their summer vacation, leaving Ewell all on his own in their apartment. Enter Marilyn Monroe who just happens to be living upstairs.

Even better, there is a secret trap door that allows a sweltering Monroe to gain access to Ewell’s air-conditioned apartment.

Monroe just wants to chill. Ewell has other things in mind. Nothing much comes of it, but there is one classic, iconic scene in which Marilyn, wearing a white halter dress with a full pleated skirt stands on top of a subway grate in order to catch the breeze of a passing train. Of course, the billowing skirt reveals Marilyn’s legs and more. Ewell is delighted. Monroe seems not to notice or care about the stir she is causing.

Fast forward to 2011. The dress was sold at auction for $5.6 million. Yes, $5.6 million. Here’s the story behind it all. It involves singer Debbie Reynolds and her daughter Carrie Fisher and a fire sale that broke auction records left, right, and center.

Debbie Reynolds – Collector Extraordinaire

Debbie Reynolds was a pretty good singer and a passable actress and, via her husband the singer Eddie Fisher, the mother of Carrie Fisher of Star Wars fame. And Debbie was an avid collector of movie props and memorabilia, including quite a few pieces from Star Wars donated by Carrie, a.k.a. Princess Leia.

Way back when Debbie bought what has been dubbed “the subway dress” for $200, from Kent Warner, who “liberated” the dress from Fox in the early 1970s. Her collection also included a pair of Ruby Slippers that were a replica of the ones Judy Garland wore in the 1930s version of The Wizard of Oz, the dress worn by Barbara Streisand in Hello Dolly, and Audrey Hepburn’s iconic “Ascot outfit” from My Fair Lady. 

But by 2011, Debbie auctioned off some of her vast collection, including Marilyn’s dress from The Seven Year Itch.

The auctioneers estimated that the dress might fetch around $2 million. But, at the end of the day, a mystery buyer plunked down $4.6 million and the auctioneers tagged on $1 million in commission, bringing the total to a staggering $5.6 million. Reynolds, saddened at having to break up part of her collection, must have breathed a sigh of relief when the first two auctions of items from her vast collection brought in a whopping $25 million. That’s a lot of consolation to have in your pocket.

A Silly Little Dress That Caused A Sensation And Led To A Divorce

What some called a “silly little dress” was reportedly designed by 20th Century Fox designer William “Billy” Travilla. In fact, he designed clothes for Marilyn in eight of her films, including the sexy pink number she wore in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. He even claimed to have had a brief affair with the bombshell actress. He and Monroe worked well together. He did a splendid job of showing off her curves without offending 1950 America’s prudish  sensibilities.

At the time she made The Seven Year Itch Marilyn was married to baseball legend Joe DiMaggio. He was, to say the least, a jealous man. And he was front row center when the famous subway scene was shot. The Guardian reported that he was “less than pleased with what he felt was an ‘exhibitionist’ scene”. Even though the scene was shot at 1 a.m., thousands of mostly male fans showed up to watch the dress fly up. There was much smirking and leering going on. Outraged, DiMaggio stormed off the set. And there was a “violent” fight between DiMaggio and Monroe in their hotel room after the shoot. As soon as she got back to California, Marilyn filed for divorce, claiming “mental cruelty”.

The marriage was short and not too sweet, lasting less than two years. It’s a good thing Joe wasn’t on the scene when Marilyn made Gentlemen Prefer Blondes in 1953. He would have taken one look at the tight, sexy pink dress Travilla designed for her and had a fit.

Not long after The Seven Year Itch released, Debbie Reynolds spent $200 and bought the dress from Kent Warner, who “liberated” the dress from Fox in the early 1970s. At the time, she was married to singer Eddie Fisher, Carrie Fisher’s father. A few years later, he famously dumped Debbie in favor of Elizabeth Taylor. A few years after they married, she dumped Fisher for Richard Burton. So, in the end, Debbie got the last laugh out of that situation. And later she bought the elaborate crown Taylor wore in Cleopatra. It must have been satisfying to Reynolds when the crown sold for $70,000.

So that’s the tale behind a silly little dress that not only played its part in one of the most iconic film scenes ever but also caused a divorce and, by the way, broke auction records in a big way.

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